‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’.
The earliest known image of Jesus is one of him as a shepherd. Not Jesus on a cross, not Jesus blessing a child, not Jesus as a baby in the lap of his mother, but Jesus as a shepherd. There’s a small drawing etched in the cave-like hiding places of the first generations of Christians and it is of Jesus as a shepherd. And if I was a betting woman I’d wager that one of the most common images of Jesus that you can find in stained glass is of Jesus as the good shepherd. I know there’s been at least one chapel I’ve spent years of my life worshipping in where it was Jesus with a lamb over his shoulders that was the main picture. And so, over time, the image has seeped into me.
And yet, I’ve never known quite what to make of it. If Jesus is the shepherd does that mean you and I are sheep? Better than goats perhaps, but not as good as being human beings, who are only a little lower than the angels. I once knew a real literal shepherd who was called, of all things, Mr Glasgow. He told me that sheep are not as clever as they like to think they are – which is a very subtle way of saying that they are pretty stupid creatures. I like a pastoral image as much as the next person, and I’ve said Psalm 23 by bedsides and clung to it in my own troubles. But I know too how easily thinking of ourselves as sheep can infantilise us and how we can sentimentalise shepherding and sheep and even Jesus. So I’ve been searching for another way into this image. And perhaps the fourth Gospel might help me find it. Because there is something very puzzling and scandalous about that key verse – about the good shepherd being the one who dies.
I can imagine that there were some among the early Christians who really thought that Jesus had not been a very good shepherd… precisely because he died. They were probably feeling that a good shepherd would have stayed around. A good shepherd would not have got himself killed. A good shepherd who really cared about the flock would have been politically astute enough to avoid getting into trouble with the Temple authorities and the Romans and would have stayed with his followers for more than three years – and that he would have achieved much more than getting them into a position where they too were going to get into trouble. It was hard to be sheep without a shepherd, not knowing what to do, what to remember of what he’d said, how to live together, how to keep going. I can imagine the disciples feeling rather as many of us do when someone close to us has died – abandoned – even, let’s be honest, after the resurrection.
But here is this passage where Jesus is making a case for a good shepherd who dies and for a saviour who does not ‘win’ in the usual sense. He could have escaped the terrible death the Romans had given him. He could have run away, been a fugitive in the hills perhaps until they were prepared to let him alone. He could have had a great career and been a famous rabbi with a great school of disciples and centre for study somewhere. He could have had this if he’d run away. But Jesus says – the true shepherd will even lay down his life for the sheep, and this is what he has done or will do, lay down his life for them. His death is not their tragedy, but their salvation, ‘that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness.’ But how does the death of a shepherd become salvation? What on earth does Jesus, or the writer of the Gospel, mean? How can I sit under a stained glass window of a shepherd, or listen to this Gospel reading, and discover that this image means something life transforming for me? I don’t think it’s obvious at all.. do you?
It may be that we need to look more closely at the text than we often do and ask where Jesus was when he was saying all this about shepherds who die and gates through which sheep go in and out. Because it turns out, that when he said these things he wasn’t standing on a Galilean hillside surrounded by gambolling lambs, spring flowers and babbling brooks. He was standing in the Temple. And the sheep that could be seen close by, baaing and protesting and making a mess no doubt, were not playing in green fields, but were waiting to be slaughtered. The doors and gates through which they had to pass were not into folds, but into pens ready to have their throats cut so that they could be sacrificed on the temple altars. These were sheep that were about to die. They were sacrificial vicitms – not cute lambs decorating a pastoral idyll, but sheep about to be killed. And it’s in this context that Jesus says that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. It’s in a place where sheep are being killed in some kind of religious sacrifice that Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd who gives his life … Does this help us think again…?
The system of Temple sacrifices was just one of those many ways that human beings like us think that our own tribe can please God or survive somehow by finding a victim… Even if all we do is to divide the world up into sheep and goats, good shepherd and thieves, Christians and Muslims, Nonconformists and Anglicans, think of any pair you like pretty much… we all of us trade on this making of victims, naming those on the other side of the gate or the door, those who are ‘other sheep’, those who are not us, non U, strangers… But there is something astonishing about this passage in which Jesus somehow brings down all of that and makes us think again. He is a good shepherd, yes, but not the kind of good shepherd anyone was expecting. He was a shepherd who dies, a shepherd who instead of protecting his own particular sheep chose to die for those condemned. He takes the place of the victim, of the sheep eaten by wolves or killed for the altar. He takes the place of the slain lamb and in that way is the good shepherd. He is the good shepherd who becomes the lamb..
In Jesus’ time, and in the Bible itself, you can find lots of debate about who were the good shepherds – who were the good and purest priests – as distinct from the rotten priests or the priests of false religions. But Jesus does not proclaim himself a good shepherd in this sense – not a good shepherd over against some other shepherds. And he doesn’t say that some sheep are better than others – but he says he will be a shepherd to sheep of every fold. All he says is that he will lay down his life. Whereas in the old world, the world he was and is overturning, it is the sheep who die, in the world Jesus was bringing and proclaiming, the sheep live, in abundance, and the shepherd instead dies for them.
So imagine if you can, standing in the Temple courtyard, with the sounds of sheep in your ears as they begin to sense the fate that awaits them. And Jesus looks at them and says that he is the good shepherd and he will give his life for the sheep. Perhaps you would see in the fear-filled faces of the sheep, the fear and sorrow of so many in the world whose fate is suffering, all those people who are made victims in so many ways. And perhaps you would see in their faces something of your own fear and your own suffering. You would see them as examples of the many victims and sufferers in the world, and you would see laid bare all the ways in which you too have sometimes suffered and endured. And you would hear Jesus saying ‘I am the good shepherd. I will take that place and lay down my life..’ I think that would mean, or could mean more, than a gentle, pastoral and bordering-on-sentimental, image. The story of Jesus has meant so much for centuries to many of the poorest in the world, and he speaks to our poverty of spirit and heart too today, as we hear him say that he will not stand aloof from the reality of all our lives, but will come and give himself for us – and die for us.
In the Temple there was only a way in for the sheep. There was no way out. But standing near that way in, Jesus says in this passage, ‘Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.. I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ Because of Jesus there is a way out – for all the victims of the world, for you and for me, for all of us. Because of Jesus all the suffering ones can get out into life like condemned sheep released into pasture… There is a way out.. and a way to life. And it’s a way for all people, not just for Christians or Jews or the good ones… but for all the sheep of every fold.. There will be one flock, one shepherd, says Jesus.
There is a Catholic theologian James Alison, to whom I am grateful for some of these thoughts. He tells of how he went on a retreat and found himself thinking about Jesus’ speaking to Peter and asking him simply to ‘Feed my sheep’ – and he says ‘I cannot make sense of my life except as an aspiring to make that summons flesh’. We are all called to be shepherds – and good shepherds – to find those who are being made victims, those who are treated cruelly by the world or just ignored and despised, and to give our lives so that they too can find a way out, a way to life.
Jesus’ way of living his life, and being divinely human, was not at all to nurture his own life or guard himself from harm. Not at all. He gave himself away, even gave his life away, for others – gave it away for us. What could we do in response except give our lives away too. And when we do so of course, when we go into the gate of faith, we find that there is a gate out too, and it leads us out into life, full life.
The story we know best about Jesus in the Temple is that he turned over the tables and set free the pigeons. But perhaps we should also imagine him setting free the sheep, the frightened sheep in their pens, half-knowing their fate, setting them free to live. And of course we know what price he paid even for the pigeons … let alone for sheep, let alone for men and women, let alone for you… he gave his life. Amen.